Universal Studios Hollywood, Universal City, CA
Greetings, folks! The first week of this year's Halloween season is in the books, and it was an eventful one, with Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios, Halloween Time at the Disneyland Resort, and Fright Fest at Six Flags Magic Mountain premiering. We'll tackle the other two in future updates, but this week, we're looking at the perennial hubbub that is Horror Nights. Reviews of the mazes, scare zones, and Terror Tram will come in greater detail later in the week, but for now, I wanted to jot down my initial thoughts on this year's sinister festivities.
You may recall that our experience on opening night last year left a sour taste in our mouths, as massive and unprecedented crowds (even for Horror Nights) clogged mazes with incredible waits all night long. For the first time ever, we didn't even make it through every maze. At the time, I wondered if the ultra-hyped lineup and surging popularity had squeezed the event past the point of enjoyment.
Well, whatever penance paid last year must have gone into positive results this year, because my trip last Friday ended up being a surprisingly enjoyable time, highlighted by pleasant, autumn-like temperatures (the literal coolest I've ever seen at opening night of HHN in the 11 years I've been attending the event) and shockingly not-terrible lines! In fact, despite not having any front of the line passes, I was done with every maze plus the Terror Tram by 11:30! Where lines for most mazes were 2-3 hrs or even more on prior years' opening nights, last year, only one maze reached three hours, and most of the other mazes were no more than 90 minutes or under two hours at their worst. In addition, the majority of mazes actually required less wait time than advertised.
It all added up to a much more enjoyable time, because, as I've mentioned before, the biggest detractor to Halloween Horror Nights is the massive number of people attending. To not be able to experience every maze or sometimes only go through only half of all the seasonal attractions is pretty disconcerting, given how pricy the tickets are. But whatever changes made to lessen the crowd impact this year seemed to work. Navigating the event still required strategy, but finishing every maze and the Terror Tram at least once was totally doable. (I cannot stress enough how important it is to arrive before 5pm for early entry, though.)
Although there were typical opening night issues, I didn't experience anything majorly detrimental. Operations-wise, things seemed to work pretty well, and interestingly, I felt like Universal seemed to implement certain strategies that coincided with suggestions I had thrown out last year when I wrote about the Horror Nights wait issue. (I'm not taking credit for this; I'm just pleased that there were gestures made to improve the guest service and experience.)
Judging from the reactions of my haunt enthusiast friends, the Horror Nights lineup this year seemed less exciting and less packed with star power when compared with recent years. The Shining, Ash vs Evil Dead, and American Horror Story: Roanoke presented new themes and stories not tackled before, but the rest of the lineup seemed like a rehash of many previously used IP's. Titans of Terror had Freddy Krueger, Jason Vorhees, and Leatherface, who headlined last year or recently. SAW, Insidious, and Blumhouse of Horrors covered content that had also been recently featured. Added together, this year seemed like a less exciting-sounding event than previous years, which might have dissuaded many guests from attending. Although it sounds silly, that was exactly an idea I mentioned last year to mitigate crowds.
Moving early entry up an hour was also beneficial. They actually started doing this the second weekend last year, giving guests the option to go through select mazes two hours early instead of just one. Given L.A.'s notorious late-arriving crowd to any sort of mass attendance event, this gave the early birds a nice advantage they were free to use. I remember even thinking last year that one extra hour would have been what I needed to finish every maze.
Ultimately, this year, I didn't need the extra hour after all, which points to another observation that many of my friends also noticed: there just weren't as many people attending opening night of Horror Nights this year. I'm not exactly certain why. Perhaps Universal lowered the capacity cap this year and balanced out profits with the return of the R.I.P. Pass, which provides unlimited front of line privileges (the regular Front of Line pass is only usable once per maze). Alternately, last year could have been the final straw for general guests, who collectively decided that the waits, stress, and hassle of Horror Nights was no longer worth it, while front of line upcharges were too steep to stomach. Whatever the case was, the reduced wait times across the board benefited the fans who did attend!
There were still the usual celebrity interruptions and media filming at mazes this year, since opening night and media night continue to overlap. After all, Universal Studios always attracts the celebrity presence. But I noticed that there was much better communication of this possibility to guests throughout the park. It began with recurring announcements broadcast to those entering the park and continued with signage at every maze. Though this didn't resolve the actual issue of celebrity walk-through's temporarily closing mazes that had already-long waits, it at least managed expectations by informing guests of the possibility. I very much appreciated at least that effort. It also didn't hurt that I had some amount of luck and missed that maze stoppages that did occur.
This brings us to the mazes themselves. At this point--and I've harped on this before--Horror Nights mazes are what they are, which is to say: predictable. Because the focus is on recreating and translating cinematic experiences into real life, the operations of every maze is locked into rote. That means every scare is the same type: an enchanting and immersive scene, something distracting, sudden and crashing sound effect, strobes, and a scareactor rushes or pops out of some hidden opening for a quick jump scare. The actor retreats, and rinse and repeat. Literally 90% of all maze scares belong to this sequence, with the remaining minority being slightly more subtle shaker can scares from hiding monsters behind curtains. This certainly does produce a lot of scares for the skittish or the guest who doesn't go too many haunted attractions. But with that sort of redundancy, most haunt veterans will be hard pressed to actually get scared, unless they encounter the perfect timing.
That said, even though the scare psychology of the mazes was repetitive, and even though the lineup was less impressive-sounding compared to previous years, the mazes as a whole were actually and mostly pretty solid and nicely enjoyable. There wasn't a single maze that stood out on a legendary status, the way iconic mazes like Halloween (from two years ago), American Werewolf in London, and Alien vs Predator did (though Insidious came close for me and was my personal favorite of the night). But the top five or six mazes were all pretty close to each other in quality, and on any given night or even within any night, through luck of the draw, they could switch places with each other across multiple people's rankings. The only maze that was noticeably bad was The Walking Dead attraction, which already seems to be suffering from minimum staffing syndrome in year 2 of its existence--even during Horror Nights. And SAW, though fun to observe, was pretty much a rehash of all previous SAW mazes with pretty light scares during the two times I went through. The Shining was a tad slow and disappointing my first run through (which was in the 5:00 hour, so that could have affected operations), but it was much better the second time around, near midnight, and it certainly offered plenty of detail that fans will really appreciate. The remaining mazes? Great energy, typically fantastic sets, expectedly excellent storytelling. All in all, the mazes were firmly good to great in quality.
The commendable energy I saw in the mazes also carried over to the scare zones. At the Metro Lot, Urban Inferno provided a nice gauntlet of monsters for guests to navigate, while Toxic Tunnel did the best with what it had. But Hell-O-Ween, the main scare zone at the upper lot, shined. Encompassing a mutated version of the old fashioned, stylized aesthetic of "trick or treat" Halloween, this scare zone featured a wonderful and entertaining medley of traditional monsters who clearly were having a ton of fun scaring the unfortunate guests they encountered. There were skeletons, clowns, a vampire and werewolf, though mostly scarecrows and pumpkin heads, leading me and multiple colleagues to jokingly call this area "The Hollow: With Chainsaws." Nevertheless, the scareactors provided a great show.
The Terror Tram was the Terror Tram. It's the same setup each year, just with a different overlay, and it simply provides modified photographic content for me to enjoy.
And ultimately, that's what opening night ended up being: a respectable event that didn't quite meet my all-time best experiences at Horror Nights but nevertheless provided a positive time with solid performances. It's funny what a year's difference can make. This isn't the first time that I've followed a disappointing year with a reassuring one, but that's how last Friday played out. Hopefully, they can maintain the improved crowd management through the season, especially once things really pick up in October and more "general public" guests start attending.
At the end of it all, I had a great time this year, and that's the most important metric. Thumbs up to Universal for restoring my esteem in Halloween Horror Nights!
Architect. Photographer. Disney nerd. Haunt enthusiast. Travel bugged. Concert fiend. Asian.